I am a member of the community to which artist Candy Chang referred many times during her talk at Mandell Theater April 30, that is, the community of people living near 38th and Powelton Avenue. My experience of her artwork, “Before I Die…,” is very different from what Chang described.
I live only about 50 yards from where the wall stood, yet I had no say in the invitation of Chang to install the work, no input into its conceptualization and construction, and no say at its conclusion. I — along with my neighbors and my neighbors’ children — had no recourse but to spend seven months living with it.
I experienced the wall as an exceptionally ugly assembly of black plywood, often covered with vulgarities, racial slurs, crude drawings, inanities and graffiti tags. I also observed a peculiar pattern: Whenever too many negative contributions had accumulated, someone would wash the boards off. Soon after, about a third of the spaces would be filled with pleasant but innocuous wishes, all, interestingly, in the same handwriting.
During her talk, Chang spoke of many interactions with the community during the time the wall was on display. To my knowledge, she was here for only a couple of days in late October (when it was installed) and for a few days at the end of April (in connection with her talk). On Oct. 16, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s GroundSwell Team circulated an email, inviting the “community” to the Dornsife Center Oct. 23. We were asked to participate in a round table discussion with Chang, to “explore concepts for a temporary art installation at the site.” Attendees were encouraged to “bring ideas, materials, momentums [sic], photographs and any other items that represent the history, rich culture of University City High School and the Black Bottom experience.”
Instead, “Before I Die…” — a formula-based piece that had appeared in other locations around the world — had already been erected earlier that same day. Obviously, there had never been any intent to include input from the community. It is also worth noting that the meeting at the Dornsife Center was, according to Drexel University’s Department of English and Philosophy who sponsored Chang, the “only event open to the community” during her October visit.
Nonetheless, several attendees voiced their sadness at the impending demolition of the three schools, especially University City High School. Some neighborhood-based artists, who had been told that there would be opportunities for other works on the construction fence, were surprised to learn that there would be no budget for their projects. The only artist to be paid would be Candy Chang, who had been brought in from New Orleans with virtually no knowledge of the Mantua, Powelton and West Powelton neighborhoods.
I had hoped that by attending Chang’s presentation April 30, I would have had a chance to engage with the artist during the question and answer period. Instead, after sitting through 90 minutes of stories about her career path and the artworks she has created, the moderator announced that they had run out of time and that questions would be cut short. Two audience members in the first rows were handed the microphone but the rest of us were left with our hands raised.
Besides being a member of the community supposedly served by Chang’s artwork, I am also an artist and a professor of art at Franklin & Marshall College. I write for Sculpture Magazine, and I’ve had many years of experience with both public art and socially engaged art. It is from this professional standpoint that I offer these additional observations.
While Candy Chang is clearly an intelligent artist, deserving of some of her accolades, “Before I Die…” is not one of the more well-conceived works of its genre. With this kind of “socially engaged” public art, context is everything. Understanding that context, and gaining the trust of the local residents, takes time. Perhaps in its first iteration — on an abandoned house in Chang’s New Orleans neighborhood — the wall had some real meaning, given that she lived in that community and had ample time to come to know her neighbors.
During her April talk, Chang stated several times that she was honored to have been invited to install one of her walls on “the Drexel campus,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that 38th and Powelton Avenue is in a residential or commercial corridor and not internal to a college campus.
If I had been allowed the opportunity, I would have asked Chang about her criteria for judging the success of an artwork, and how the desire for “success” by a sponsoring institution like Drexel might present a compromising factor. I would have asked why she believed that passers-by would somehow reach deeply into their beings to identify longings more profound than “get to Disneyworld” or “make all the jerks pay.” (This latter desire appeared on the wall through its entire run, constantly re-contributed.)
If Chang had attended meetings of the Mantua Civic Association, the Powelton Village Civic Association and the West Powelton Concerned Community Council, she might have been able to speak with the area residents. Had she met with the people at the University City District and the People’s Emergency Center Community Development Corporation, she might have gained an understanding of the economic challenges along the commercial corridor. Had she knocked on the doors of those of us who live across the street, she might have learned about the history of that corner, including a previous public art controversy (Jefre’s RE:flect, the “green wall” that literally kept dying and was eventually dismantled) and the repeated shootings, stabbings and altercations at the local bar.
Had Chang immersed herself in the surrounding community and come to understand the context in which she was working, the resulting artwork might have taken a very different form: one that truly provoked “civic engagement and emotional introspection.”
Virginia Maksymowicz is an Associate Professor in the Art and Art History Department at Franklin and Marshall College. She can be contacted at [email protected].